Pharos-Tribune

February 3, 2014

What would Jesus do?: Faith at center of gay marriage lobbying

Marriage ban foes use language of faith to lobby lawmakers

By Maureen Hayden CNHI Statehouse Bureau
Pharos-Tribune

---- — INDIANAPOLIS — State Rep. Kevin Mahan expected to be inundated with calls and emails from advocates in Indiana’s big cities demanding that he oppose the state’s same-sex marriage amendment.

Mahan said he was more struck in the months before the vote by the pastors and church elders who bent his ear in his district in east-central Indiana, as well as neighbors from Catholic and Protestant congregations in Hartford City, the small farming community where he lives. They wanted Mahan, a Republican, to know they didn’t like the idea of amending the constitution to lock in a law outlawing same-sex marriages and civil unions.

Mahan, who describes himself as a Christian who “goes to church every chance I get,” voted for the amendment two years ago when it sailed through the Republican-controlled House on a 70-26 vote. He hadn’t expected to change his view when it came up again.

On Jan. 27, during debate on House Joint Resolution 3, Mahan offered an impassioned plea to pull the language banning civil unions from the measure. He cited the pleas of his faithful constituents, which reflect polls showing diminishing support for the amendment statewide.

In a decade since the marriage amendment was first proposed, the conventional view has held that it pits religious forces against secular proponents of marriage equality for gays and lesbians. While religious beliefs still infuse arguments for the amendment, the changing minds of voters and some legislators may be a testament to liberal and moderate clergy — and their followers — who’ve used the language of faith to counter the moral claims of amendment supporters.

“I’d go to my son’s basketball game, and I’d have folks whom I know are Christians and leaders in their churches want to sit with me and spend an entire quarter of a basketball game in a high school gym talking about this,” Mahan said earlier this week. “They’d say, ‘I used to support this but now I don’t.’ I had listened to that stuff.”

On Monday, 51 of Mahan’s colleagues, including 22 Republicans, agreed with him. Their vote left intact the ban on gay marriage, but the change in the resolution’s language to remove civil unions could delay or derail the amendment by keeping it off the November ballot. Two separately elected legislatures much approve a proposed constitutional amendment — of the exact same wording — before it goes to voters for ratification.

Shouts of “Hallelujah!” and “Thank God!” could be heard from amendment opponents in the hallway outside the House chamber after the vote. Those religious expressions weren’t just reserved for the dramatic finish. For months, arguments of morality and belief have framed both sides.

Amendment supporters, including Republican Gov. Mike Pence, still draw upon a view of marriage that condemns same-sex unions as contrary to Biblical teaching. During the House debate, Rep. Woody Burton, R-Whiteland, argued that Hoosiers should be given the chance to express that belief at the ballot box: “Somebody said to me, ‘You know, Burton, part of your problem is you let your faith get in the way.’ I said, ‘I certainly hope so. I’m not ashamed of it and I’m not going to back away.’ “

In months leading to Monday’s vote, faith-infused messages were as common from the likes of Whittney Murphy, a Pentecostal church member who holds the title of “faith organizer” with Freedom Indiana, a coalition of businesses, organizations, and churches opposing HJR-3.

“Love leads every conversation that I have,” said Murphy. “We work with many denominations, many churches, and many people of different faiths. But one of the tenets of all faith communities is to love one another and treat each person as you want to be treated. The question is, does HJR-3 meet that test?”

Churches around the state are putting that question to lawmakers. Last November, more than 300 faith leaders signed a letter, posted online by Freedom Indiana, opposing the amendment. The letter said its signatories didn’t agree on whether the state should grant same-sex marriage. They did agree that the constitution wasn’t the right place to decide the issue.

Freedom Indiana’s faith organizers went a step beyond. They plugged into a growing grassroots movement and asked people in the pews to talk to legislators about family and friends affected by the issue.

“It’s a very personal issue for many people,” said the Rev. Patricia Case, a minister in the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ.

Republican state Rep. Tom Saunders came to see it that way after he was contacted by clergy in his rural district in eastern Indiana who opposed the amendment. Saunders voted for the measure in 2011, but changed his mind after seeking out counsel from his own minister last fall.

“She said the Bible says, ‘Love thy neighbor,’” said Saunders. “Well, I live in a town of about 500 people, and my neighbor and her partner are gay and they fly the rainbow flag. You can’t love your neighbor and treat them like second-class citizens.”

Curt Smith, who heads the pro-amendment Indiana Family Institute, said Freedom Indiana’s faith organizers have had an impact on the debate in the Statehouse. The rising voice of clergy in opposition to the amendment prompted Smith’s organization to create the Indiana Pastors Alliance, which claims 600 members.

“We’ve had to be more intentional about finding voices who could testify for the amendment and contact people in their House districts,” Smith said. He credited Freedom Indiana for mobilizing an effective grassroots effort. “Clearly the other side has done a good job of putting a human face to the context of what we’re talking about.”

The faith-based opposition to HJR-3 joins a vocal coalition that includes some of the state’s biggest employers, universities and mayors of cities big and small. Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, said it adds a new element that counteracts the notion that there is only one theological view on marriage.

And it gives legislators in a conservative state some political cover to question the need to amend the constitution when there is already a law on the books that bans gay marriage.

“I think they’re hearing more people of faith question the need for a constitutional amendment,” Downs said. “More and more people seem to be asking: ‘If the law already says you can’t do it, why do we need to throw another stone on the pile?’ “

State Rep. Ed Clere of New Albany agrees. In 2011, he was the only Republican in the Legislature to vote against the amendment. On Monday, 13 Republicans voted against the amendment even after it was stripped of the civil union language, along with Democrats who’d voted for the amendment the last time.

“The physical presence of clergy in the Statehouse has been a major factor,” Clere said. “I don’t think it’s something that a lot of legislators expected to see. It’s certainly added a welcome dimension.”

Still, there are questions about how many more legislators amendment opponents can convert. The stripped-down resolution is headed to the more conservative Senate, which passed the amendment on a 40-10 vote in 2011.

Smith’s Indiana Family Institute and other conservative faith groups are lobbying senators to restore the civil unions ban. They contend the clause is essential to the legal argument that marriage deserves unique status as the only way to deliver the social benefits of raising children with a mother and father.

Freedom Indiana’s faith organizers are re-doubling their efforts, as well.

“This is not about building a campaign. This is about building a whole community,” Case said. “We don’t want to win a vote. We want to win hearts. We want to move Indiana into the kind of place that it can be — a place where Hoosier hospitality comes alive and we really live what we say.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. Reach her at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup or follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden